Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Why We Farm: How Young Farmers Can Make a Living

 

Neysa working 2

A year and a half ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of us had a background in agriculture. In fact, I was probably about as disconnected from physical labor as you can get — I was pursuing my PhD. This weekly series will take you through Travis’ and my journey to own and operate our own organic farm. From a farm internship in a tiny New York town, to management positions at the largest CSA farm in the southern United States, and now our current project of running a one-acre farm in Austin, Texas, our experience has been filled with wild successes, sharp disappointments, and self-discovery. I hope our story can provide others with ideas and resources for their own farming projects–urban or rural, big or small, hobby or professional. I also hope it can shine some light on the new organic movement surging in urban spaces and among America’s young people. To me, our collective attempt to reconnect with food is a testament to the ability of youth to create, even in difficult times.

Originally posted on Dissertation to Dirt, January 2010

Most major US newspapers —The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal to name a few—have run articles about people like Travis and me. Young urbanites, galvanized by the local food movement, are moving to the country “for a fresh start,” they say. These articles tend to paint us as idealists, politically motivated, disgusted by industrial agriculture and willing to sacrifice lives in the city to recapture a fading food culture. The writers delve into our motivations, marvel at the manual labor, and often chuckle a bit at our precocity. But too quickly, they write us off as a locavorist fad, neglecting a much-needed discussion of farming as a modern career. What is really drawing young people, like Travis and me, to try to make legitimate careers out of organic food? What are our plans for the future? Will we succeed? In the shadow of a towering industrial food system, can we succeed? Those are the questions I face every day.

The reasons young urbanites move from cities to farms vary, but I’d venture a guess that they are based upon a shared experience. Many of us stepped out of college into a diminishing economy, unpopular wars, a feeling of political invisibility and soured expectations in the job market. “Twentysomething” took on a listless new overtone of a disillusioned generation promised a solid future in college, but met with debt and difficulty after graduation. At the same time, new realizations about global warming, synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use, industrial meat, over-processed foods and diet-related disease brought our current lifestyles under a microscope.

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In that context, city kids pursuing organic farming is not difficult to explain at all. It is, in fact, the perfect intersection of issues much of America’s youth has attached significance to in recent years: environmental preservation, sustainability, independence, local food chains, workers’ rights and personal health. For young urbanites, organic farming is more than a job; it is a conscious step toward realizing our worldview. Farming allows us new relationships with food, with our environment, with our communities, and with our bodies. Moving “back to the land,” then, is actually a progressive step forward.  It is a rejection of our circumstances. Young organic farmers are seeking to change the current state of things by producing an alternative. I think this is the key to understanding young urbanites’ interest in organic farming: it is at once an affront and an offering to the status quo.

Yet, while farming is more than a job to us, making it a viable job becomes complicated.  While farm internships this year have given me skills that only hands-on experience can, the costs easily outweigh the benefits: I am already burnt out on the aimlessness of interning–the inherent transience, the lack of real engagement with farming, the makeshift living arrangements.  To add to that, the path to getting my own land remains unclear.  Farm employment pays notoriously poorly, and purchasing land seems like it will be eternally out of my grasp.  So, our stories are not just pastoral narratives about shucking off materialism; they are stories about trying to create a career in a field that is neglected and impermeable, but absolutely indispensable.  Until the practical impediments to young people learning to farm are addressed (low pay, limited opportunity for advancement, no access to land), most smart, dedicated people will not consider farming as a career, and local organic farms will remain on the fringes of American food.

More young adults are farming organically now than ever in the last 30 years.  But for this trend to continue, farming must incorporate the components of a viable career: living wages, feasible business plans, health care options and the potential for growth. We need support from the USDA.  We need grants and loans for start-up farmers.  Perhaps most importantly, we need incubator programs for people who have farm experience, but do not have the land and capital necessary to begin their own business.

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Young, formerly-urban farmers may help bring about these changes, using skills brought from their earlier lives. My generation is not going to trade in our iPods for stirrup hoes. At least I’m not. I live on a farm, but I love the city. My Support Local Farming bumper sticker is firmly attached to my MacBook. This is not a contradiction; in fact, a farmer in touch with, rather than at odds with, the city’s energy, technology, values and needs may be exactly what’s called for to help make sustainable farming—and local, organic food—America’s primary food source.

Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit www.dissertationtodirt.com or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa      Photos: Neysa King, Carrie Kenny

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4 Responses to “Why We Farm: How Young Farmers Can Make a Living”

  1. The accumulation of knowledge is always on going. When you no longer can use it is when you appreciate how much you have gained. I keep hoping I can find someone who I can pass my 55 years of Greenhouse/Nursey knowledge to. I think the young write you off as old & backwards.

  2. It’s true that it’s hard to make farming pay these days, and I guess that’s true for young and old alike. My wife and I are in our late twenties, and are facing these same challenges of trying to make a living from our farm, entering into our 4th year of running our own small farm business. We still both have to have off-farm jobs, which means we’re stretched very thin and we still have trouble paying the bills every month. And I should point out that we are in the lucky situation of having family land to grow on and live on (i.e. no land rent or mortgage to think about), so if it’s hard for us then I don’t even want to think about what it’s like for those who have to buy or lease land. The key for us is in direct marketing, and I think the linchpin to this whole thing will be in bringing more of the general public into the fold of direct food purchasing–whether it’s caused by education or by higher gas/food prices. We can’t do much about gas prices, but we’re working on the education part.
    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Emmett
    -www.wisdomoftheradish.com

  3. Larry, I’d like to hear about your years of greenhouse experience! My husband and I just built one of our own and made a hundred mistakes along the way.

    Emmett, I agree. Yes, Travis and I are in the midst of figuring out how to buy land and get started. There are a few resources: The FSA loan and the Young Farmer’s Grant. If the land payments are low enough and we develop a good business model now while on this incubator farm in Austin, we may be able to hit the ground running and actually get by farming within the next few years. We’ll see! Thanks for the comment, and I look forward to reading The Wisdom of the Radish.

  4. Hello from Alabama. I am a young organic minded grower. 28 yrs old All of my farm helpers are under the age of 21.

    I am glad to find a blog like this. Keep up the fight to the people locally.

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